26. The Kremlin as seen by the Marquis de Custine

The Empire of the Czar ... by the Marquis de Custine.

(Astolphe, Marquis de Custine (1790-1857) served as a young man as an aide to Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna. His father and grandfather were both guillotined in the French Revolution. Though conventionally married, his tastes were homosexual, and a major scandal in 1824, when he was beaten up in an unsavoury robbery, always affected his reputation, so that he was excluded from smart French society. He turned as consolation to travel, literature and religion. Widowed in 1823, he found a charming (male) companion to share his life, and was a friend of Chopin, Balzac and other Romantic stars. Heine cuttingly called him a 'clemi-homme de lettres', which does not do justice to his famous (and in Russia notorious) book, Russie en 1839.)

The fear of a man possessing absolute power is the most dreadful thing upon earth; and with all the imagery of this fear visible in the Kremlin, it is still impossible to approach the fabric without a shudder.

Towers of every form, round, square, and with pointed roofs, belfries, donjons, turrets, spires, sentryboxes upon minarets, steeples of every height, style and colour, palaces, domes, watch-towers, walls embattlemented and pierced with loopholes, ramparts, fortifications of every species, whimsical inventions, incomprehensible devices, chiosks by the side of cathedrals — every thing announces violation and disorder, every thing betrays the continual surveillance necessary to the security of the singular beings who were condemned to live in this supernatural world. Yet these innumerable monuments of pride, caprice, voluptuousness, glory, and piety, notwithstanding their apparent variety, express one single idea which reigns here everywhere — such is the allegory figured by this satanic monument, as extraordinary in architecture as the visions of St John are in poetry. It is a habitation which would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse.

In vain is each turret distinguished by its peculiar character and its particular use; all have the same signification, — terror armed.

Some resemble the caps of priests, others the mouth of a dragon, others swords, their points in the air, others the forms and even the colours of various exotic fruits; some again represent a head-dress of the czars, pointed, and adorned with jewels like that of the Doge of Venice; others are simple crowns: and all this multitude of towers of glazed tiles, of metallic cupolas, of enamelled, gilded, azured, and silvered domes, shine in the sun like the colossal stalactites of the salt-mines in the neighbourhood of Cracow. These enormous pillars, these towers and turrets of every shape, pointed, pyramidical, and circular, but always in some manner suggesting the idea of the human form, seem to reign over the city and the land. To see them from afar shining in the sky, one might fancy them an assembly of potentates, richly robed and decorated with the insignia of their dignity, a meeting of ancestral beings, a council of kings, each seated upon his tomb; spectres hovering over the pinnacles of a palace. To inhabit a place like the Kremlin is not to reside, it is to defend one's self. Oppression creates revolt, revolt obliges precautions, precautions increase dangers, and this long series of actions and reactions engenders a monster; that monster is despotism, which has built itself a house at Moscow. The giants of the antediluvian world, were they to return to earth to visit their degenerate successors, might still find a suitable habitation in the Kremlin.

Every thing has a symbolical sense, whether purposely or not, in its architecture; but the real, the abiding, that appears after you have divested yourself of your first emotions in the contemplation of these barbaric splendours, is, after all, only a congregation of dungeons pompously surnamed palaces and cathedrals. The Russians may do their best, but they can never come out of the prison.

The very climate is an accomplice of tyranny. The cold of the country does not permit the construction of vast churches, where the faithful would be frozen at prayer: here the soul is not lifted to heaven by the glories of religious architecture; in this zone man can only build to his God gloomy donjons. The sombre cathedrals of the Kremlin, with their narrow vaults and thick walls, resemble caves; they are painted prisons, just as the palaces are gilded gaols.